Why you should care
Because they’re doing what chairlifts did for skiing.
On a frigid January day in 2002, 14-year-old John Luff and his friend Tommy Coates swapped boots and gloves for wetsuits at a beach along Maryland’s Eastern shore. The sand, caked with a layer of ice, cracked under their feet as they hurried toward the water, surfboards in tow. Winter storm and nor’easter patterns meant that winter months promised the best waves for East Coast surfers like Luff and Coates.
Luff ruminated on the conditions he’d create if he could wave a magic wand. For starters, he’d warm the water enough to feel his feet and shift the wind to face offshore. That’s when he began thinking about making waves beyond the ocean. It’s a dream that’s spurring more entrepreneurs and surfing enthusiasts into action.
Over the past four years, a growing number of newly designed surf parks that harness artificial wave technology have emerged worldwide, from Wales to Australia to the U.S. Most of these parks are open to the public and target a mainstream audience yet offer professional standards, transforming surfing into a sport that can be attempted effectively anywhere.
Adventure Parc Snowdonia, the world’s first dedicated surf park, opened in Wales in 2015. The technology behind it was developed by Spanish firm Wavegarden and is being adopted by more than 20 projects across five continents. The Snowdonia surf park saw 150,000 visitors in the first year of operation but has now hosted more than half a million, according to its co-founder Andy Ainscough.
Professional surfer Kelly Slater has developed a state-of-the-art private surf ranch in California, where top athletes convened for the World Surf League last year. The Texas-based BSR Surf Resort, another such facility that uses technology developed by U.S.-based American Wave Machines, opened in 2018. And more than 30 other surf parks and pools are planned or in development stages across the world. Anticipating the trend, Luff in 2012 founded Surf Park Central, a digital portal that tracks news on artificial surf parks and man-made surf destinations.
We’re democratizing surfing by allowing people to essentially surf anywhere.
Andrew Ross, URBNSURF, surf park firm
Regulators are beginning to take note. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initiated the process of introducing water safety and sanitation standards for “surf pools” in the 2016 Model Aquatic Health Code update. And with surfing set to debut as an Olympic sport in 2020, experts predict the demand for such facilities to rise as countries look to train athletes.
“We’re democratizing surfing by allowing people to essentially surf anywhere,” says Andrew Ross, founder of URBNSURF, which is building surf parks in Australia. “We’re bringing the ocean into people’s backyards.”
The shift in surfing these facilities is similar to what chairlifts did for skiing in the 1930s and 1940s, says Ross. When skiers no longer had to climb mountains to ski just one run down, interest in the sport exploded — and winter sports tourism has since grown into an estimated $20 billion ski tourism economy in the U.S. alone. The counterculture sport that grew out of beaches in Australia, California and the Hawaiian Islands is shifting into the mainstream, says Ross.
While the concept of man-made waves has existed for decades, earlier technology couldn’t produce them with the same variation in size, speed and power seen in the ocean. The “pump and dump” approach of the 1970s and ’80s, used in places like Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park, didn’t cut it. Wavegarden’s 2013 technology offered a more authentic surfing experience, generating a left- and right-breaking wave every 90 seconds. But it was only around three years ago that Wavegarden and other firms developed the electromechanical systems used in emerging parks. This technology can generate up to 1,000 waves per hour.
Catching an hour of waves at Snowdonia costs 40 euros for a beginner adult. To be sure, coastal residents don’t have to worry about those costs. But parks could be cheaper than traveling from inland cities to a beach. And controlled conditions — from heated water to wind-free locker rooms — can prove attractive for new surfers, as can the absence of crowded lineups, stingrays or sharks. Those from cold places like Edinburgh will have year-round access to waves, while working adults can surf at night. Then there’s the sheer advantage of more reps. Luff estimates that a seasoned surfer going nonstop could catch 20 waves per hour at a Wavegarden Cove Reef, compared to 2.5 hours for an average surfer to catch 20 waves in the ocean, according to surfing tech firm Wave Loch.
Meanwhile, the attraction of surfing is increasing. There are an estimated 35 million surfers worldwide, but plenty more are open to conversion: One-third of non-surfers said they’d be interested in learning, per sports research agency Gemba.“[Surfing] has a very broad church,” says Ross. “It’s almost like good smoking. If you have a great wave, you’re hooked for life.” These facilities could also boost the sport’s gender parity by offering structured progress for female surfers. While more than half of surfing lessons in Australia are taken by young women, for instance, only 10 percent of surfers in an ocean lineup are female, says Ross.
To be sure, some purists oppose building artificial environments for a sport fundamentally tied to communing with nature. Part of building stamina, they argue, involves the dedication to finding suitable spots, enduring uncomfortable environments and adapting to unpredictable conditions. There’s concern that surfing’s integrity could erode if parks are designed in a commercialized way by people who aren’t in touch with the sport.
Surf parks could also present public health risks without adequate regulations. Last September, a 29-year-old surfer died after allegedly coming into contact with a rare amoeba at BSR Cable Park’s Surf Resort in Texas. The CDC investigated the facility, which closed after the incident and was sued by the victim’s family, providing a warning for future surf parks. “Water filtration and surf-park-to-ocean transition and education is at the top of our priority list,” says Andrew Hadden, co-founder of Wavegarden Scotland. The induction process for new surfers will include a team of instructors and lifeguards monitoring sessions.
Even surf park enthusiasts argue that manmade pools are supplementary training grounds that shouldn’t replace ocean surfing — just as driving ranges haven’t made golf courses obsolete. Still, surf parks provide a community space for beginners to advance their skills before venturing into the ocean. What’s more, they could shape how surfing families travel if some evolve into full-fledged destination resorts. Adventure Parc Snowdonia already offers “glamping pods” available overnight, URBNSURF will offer amenities like beach cabanas and Desert Wave Ventures is planning a resort in Palm Desert, California, including a hotel, villas and a spa.
But even without those luxuries, newbies can now learn to surf without needing to endure frigid waters or biting winds like 14-year-old Luff all those years ago. And the critics? They risk missing this wave.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that URBNSURF is planning a resort in Palm Desert, California. The original article also misstated the location as Arizona.